Religion in Liberal Politics


Aurélia Bardon (University of Konstanz,
Élise Rouméas (University of Oxford,


Ongoing discussions about religion in politics have been fuelled by an increasing
public attention to the religious phenomenon. Concerns surrounding religion at
school, at work, and in the wider multicultural and multi-religious public sphere, have
nourished the growing literature on how to best accommodate — or contain —
religious voices and practices in contemporary liberal societies. Four main debates
regarding religion in liberal politics can be distinguished.

(1) First, the debate on secularism focuses on the institutional, financial or symbolic
relations between religion and the liberal state: does liberal democracy require the
separation of church and state? Can religious establishment ever be permissible, and if
so under what conditions? Are non-coercive, purely symbolic, forms of religious
establishment problematic? Can secularism be neutral between religion and nonreligion?
This debate also raises questions regarding the place and role of religion in
public institutions, in schools or in conceptions of national identity.

(2) Second, the debate on public justification focuses on the use of religious reasons
in public debate and in the justification of state action: is it ever legitimate to use such
reasons, or should religious reasons be excluded from public justification? What
makes a reason religious, and what (if anything) makes a religious reason
problematic? Should all citizens refrain from using non-public (including religious)
reasons, or does this requirement only applies to public officials? More generally, this
debate raises the question of the place of religion and faith-based reasoning in the
public sphere and in political deliberation.

(3) Third, a significant part of the literature on religion in legal and political
philosophy is dedicated to the question of religious freedom, of its nature, of its
justification, of its scope and of its implications: what does it mean to respect freedom
of religion? How should religious pluralism be accommodated in liberal societies?
When religious commitments are in conflict with neutral and generally applicable
laws, should exemptions be granted? Is there a right to religious freedom for groups
(churches, companies, etc), or only for individuals? Although all liberal political
philosophers share a commitment to religious freedom, they disagree when it comes
to how religious freedom should be applied, in particular in cases in which the
religious freedom of some individuals clashes with the rights of other individuals or
with the liberal neutrality of the state.

(4) Finally, many scholars have also engaged with the question of the relation
between religion and liberal political philosophy itself. This debate is not focused on
practical political issues but rather on theoretical ones: what kinds of conceptions of
religion and of secularism have been used by liberal political philosophers, and what
conceptions should they use? Should religion be singled out for special treatment, and
if so why? Or should we instead adopt an egalitarian approach, and if so what is
religion equal or analogous to? This debate also addresses the question of the
influence exercised by religion on the emergence of liberalism and on the
development of liberal values and liberal arguments.

This workshop aims at bringing together scholars whose work addresses any of these
four debates, from the tradition of liberal political philosophy or from other
philosophical traditions.